A 12-Step Guide to Making a Clean Break from Your Ex

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Any woman (or human) who’s been in a relationship has experienced the uniquely terrible, inevitable feeling when you get that first urge to call or text your former S.O after a breakup. It’s a pain that many of us aren’t prepared for, considering the culture of instant gratification we live in. It’s not just sadness and grief over losing that person—though that’s obviously part of it—but it’s also an incredulity at the fact that someone who was once fully accessible to you is now off-limits. It’s emotional whiplash.

It’s not hard to see why we backslide into contact with exes—for sex, cuddling, or texting—when we’re feeling lonely, weak-willed, or drunk. But some people seem more prone to it than others. My first breakup from my high school boyfriend, a months-long ordeal that lasted longer than the relationship itself, seems to have worked as aversion therapy for me. We lingered in a messy, undefined gray area for so long that I wanted to avoid repeating a similarly torturous situation at all costs. To me, the less boundaries we had, the more feelings were hurt.

For some women, being deeply hurt is emotional trauma enough to avoid further contact with a partner. My friend Corey, 28, ended things with her first love at age 26 when he said he wasn’t sure where their relationship was heading. She was unbelievably restrained about the whole thing, especially considering they worked together: She was civil, but cut off all unnecessary contact. “Since we were friends before we dated, I knew our dynamic,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t back to that after dropping the L-bomb. The thought of hooking up after he didn’t say what I wanted to hear repelled me—I knew I deserved better than someone who was unsure.”

For others, a partner’s uncertainty seems almost to drive their compulsion to keep in touch—via text, email, FaceTime, and in some cases, in person. Another friend, Jane, 29, dated a guy in her social circle until his hot-and-cold behavior led her to cut things off… but it took awhile. “He knew how to say enough at the right time to keep me on the hook and interested,” she says. “It’s seriously an art—he was manipulative and it got really mind-gamey until I wised up.”

Against all odds, the two are now friends, but Jane spent a whole year interpreting his mixed signals, sleeping with him intermittently, having dramatic fights or cold periods, and being generally miserable and confused about their relationship status. (Psychologists actually have a phrase for this: intermittent reinforcement, in which a person repeats a behavior in the hopes of getting positive feedback, which comes arbitrarily and rarely.) Breakups are never fun, but they definitely don’t have to be as bad as Jane’s—follow these 12 steps to make yours cleaner, clearer, and way less confusing.

  1. Don’t call it a breakup—at first.

We’re not advocating that you engage in some form of self-inflicted denial about your relationship status. But when you’re really hurting over a relationship’s end, experts say it can help to reframe it mentally and verbally. “Thinking of moving the relationship to another stage in which you no longer share intimacies, commitment, and friendship can help people move into acceptance and healing more easily,” says couples therapist Dr. Marlene Wasserman, author of Cyber Infidelity: The New Seduction .

2. Realize you might not get closure.

Some breakups are more prone to make you want to reach out to your ex than others—if a guy ghosts on you, sans explanation, for instance; or if you thought things were good and your partner drops a bombshell that they’ve been unhappy for a long time. Unfortunately, even if you talk to your ex, you might never get the answers you’re looking for. (He might not even fully understand his own motivation.) It can feel torturous, but it’s important to realize that you and only you can work out your feelings now that the relationship is over.

3. Yes, you have to block him.

There are so many reasons why you need to do this on social media and even via text/email, if necessary: It stops you from compulsively checking his Instagram and Facebook pages to see if he’s dating anyone new; it stops him from doing the same to you; and it prevents either of you from starting conversations you might regret (late-night booty calls or ill-advised fights about your issues). “Contact is seductive and tempting,” says Wasserman, but “it can be torturous and confusing. Communication, confidence, and boundaries are required for emotional health when it comes to dating and breakups.”

4. Take a short trip down memory lane.

Reliving your happy memories as a couple is not off-limits, says Wasserman. “If you block them out and only try to hang onto the anger or pain, you will hunger for contact to get positive feelings from an ex.” So spend some time with your journal or old photos and honor the good stuff you had together—it should leave you with a bittersweet feeling of happiness at the memories you shared and sadness that they’re in the past. This ritual can be cathartic and positive, as long as you don’t overindulge, wallow, or spend hours or days doing it. Keep it short and sweet—them put them away.

5. Let yourself have all the feels…

After you’ve acknowledged the positive things your ex brought to your life, it’s time to fully feel your sadness—or loneliness, or fear, whatever. “Simply be in the moment with the pain, heartache, rejection, anger, and shame,” says Wasserman. Experiencing and processing them is necessary in order to let them go—and prevent yourself from getting stuck in a cycle where you’re reaching out to your ex (or letting him reach out to you) because of the intensity of those feelings.

6. …And then actively detach.

After you’ve felt sad for awhile, it’s time to give yourself a little tough love, and put the breakup into perspective. “As painful as it is, for many people that pain is actually about something in their past, and may not entirely be about their former partner,” says couples therapist Tara Fields, Ph.D., author of The Love FixOnce you realize that the feelings that are leading you to prolong contact with your ex might not actually be all about him or her, “it can help you get perspective and detach,” she says.

7. Don’t go it alone.

You’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again: Get support when you’re dealing with a breakup, especially one that is drawn out, messy, or confusing. Find a therapist who can help you work out some of the aforementioned childhood issues. And lean on friends: “Accept that you will have weak moments where you may get the urge to contact your ex, so have other people you feel comfortable calling to talk about your pain,” says Wasserman.

8. Have a no-fantasy policy.

“You can’t always trust your instincts in these situations because when you’re feeling desperate or lonely, you may choose to see things that aren’t there,” says Fields. “You’ll take bread crumbs and make a loaf.” Even if your ex is giving you mixed signals (or you’re having mixed feelings) about not being 100 percent sure they want to break up, you’re still better off giving them space to do that. “That way, you increase your sense of self and their value of you, whether they come back or not. You can’t control your ex, but you can control your reaction.”

9. Hold yourself accountable. 

“Give a close friend permission, when you’re feeling weak, to repeat all the things you told him or her were negative about the relationship,” says Fields. It’s not about putting your ex down in order to build yourself up; it’s about staying grounded in reality—the reality that the relationship didn’t work out for a reason.

10. Get busy to distract yourself.

Go out with friends. Even if you’re not ready to seriously date yet (and you shouldn’t until you feel ready), do fun, new things. Go to a party you normally wouldn’t; take a cool class; or just go out for casual drinks with another man to remind yourself they’re out there. (Or Tinder chat with them, which can be just as fun.) Wasserman suggests keeping condoms on you in the event of “casual spontaneous sex—whether it’s because you hope it will heal you, help you forget your ex, or simply because you’re horny.” No shame in that!

11. Treat yo’ self.

“Give yourself a lot of self care during this time,” says Fields. “Treat yourself to things that are nurturing to you—get a massage, buy yourself flowers, or just ask friends for a lot of hugs to give you the oxytocin boost you’re missing from your ex.” Or shoes… Shopping therapy is real! Whatever gives you a little mood or confidence boost is so worth it right now.

12. Use what you learned. 

Breakups suck, and messy, drawn-out ones suck extra hard. But it’s not all bad, really, say pros. “It’s a time of growth and reflection,” says Fields. “Think about what led to the relationship’s end and what compelled you to keep reaching out, or responding, after the breakup. You might discover a behavioral or emotional pattern that will give you insights into future relationships.” Wasserman echoes this sentiment, saying “the pain will pass. It’s important to develop a strong relationship with yourself before starting your next committed relationship.”